Hostility erupted at LSU yesterday after graduate student Benjamin Haas announced that he planned to burn an American flag on campus as a statement in the wake of U-S-A! U-S-A!! U-S-A!!!
My friend and I were in Baton Rouge yesterday and considered going to this event. We ultimately didn’t, but media reports suggest it panned out exactly as I thought it might. And as is often the case, I hate being right.
First things first — I’m not going to condone flag burning. As I’ve said many times, it’s an unimaginative form of protest, and one that rarely says anything. Those who seek to do it in America tend to do it for shock value, and even those who have a vague political point tend to lose it in the deafening furor that such an action brings. Nothing about a flag burning makes anyone seriously think, “Gee, maybe we should carefully reconsider the issue at hand.” It’s more like, “Go to hell, hippie, go to hell!”
But this is where the true definition of patriotism rears its head. Flag burning is legal. It is protected as free speech under the U.S. Constitution. And while a lot of people would like to see that changed, its legality is the best proof that we truly have freedom of speech here. The United States of America, often touted as the most free nation in the world, does not inflict retribution on those who desecrate its symbols. Such desecration might be ugly, but true freedom is ugly.
Our free-speech rights — indeed, our rights as a whole — are only as strong as the expressions to which we apply them. If we’re only going to apply them to “pro-patriotic” speech or other pleasantries, then we’re in trouble. Free speech is not confined to what is inoffensive. If only positive speech were protected, we wouldn’t even need a First Amendment. The ugly truth about free speech is that you and I aren’t always going to like it. And we don’t have to. We can tune it out and move on to something else, or even raise verbal hell ourselves. That’s the beauty of freedom.
And that’s what everyone who decried the promised flag burning should have done — ignored it. After all, Haas wasn’t in anyone’s face and he wasn’t hurting anybody. We owed him his rights, but nobody owed him an audience. His message could have fallen on deaf ears like a tree in a deserted forest (or at the very least, been heard by a handful of interested people). Instead, overreaction by the angry crowd not only brought attention, but made a strong case for why such patriotic fervor is misguided.
In the end, Haas did not burn the flag. No doubt the mob will take credit for that, though it turns out he didn’t have the proper permit to do so (I wonder what the small-government types think about that). Haas had a short speech prepared as well, explaining his position and asserting his love for his country. Critics drowned it out with patriotic platitudes and projectiles. He eventually climbed into a police car and had to be escorted away.
Everyone cheering the outcome of yesterday’s event completely missed the point. Chanting, “U-S-A! U-S-A!” while shouting down and chasing away a fellow American is not a win for American values, it’s a loss. Yeah, congratulations on using fear and hostility to suppress a fellow citizen’s rights. Way to go in venting your outrage toward some ineffective activist instead of toward our real problems. Kudos for taking a stand for American symbolism while trampling all over what that symbolism stands for.
Free speech also covers poignant irony, right?